The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn't stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate--there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.
The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie's confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn't lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other's inspiration and escape...until they weren't.
Though it's hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it's been drained of its industry--agriculture--as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America--a land half gutted before the fires even began.
- ISBN-13: 9781631490514
- ISBN-10: 1631490516
- Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
- Publish Date: July 2017
- Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Page Count: 288
Follow the smoke
Traveling to Accomack County, Virginia, journalist Monica Hesse uncovers the complex triggers behind a pair of lovers’ five-month arson spree in the small, neglected town.
How did your Washington Post feature, which later evolved into American Fire, originate?
I live in Washington, D.C., about four hours from Accomack. It’s close enough that the fires made the news here, at least occasionally. Every few weeks I’d see something about how the fires were piling up on the Eastern Shore. When Charlie and Tonya were finally arrested, I thought, “Huh, that’s interesting. You don’t see a lot of female arsonists. I wonder what happened there?” So I drove down to cover one of the first hearings, and it happened to be the one where Charlie talked about why he and Tonya had started lighting the fires to begin with. And then I thought, “Holy ----.”
What was your most memorable experience while writing this book?
I was really sure that Charlie Smith wasn’t going to want to talk to me for the book. He hadn’t talked to anyone else, and people had tried. But I wrote him a letter that I guess stuck with him, and one morning I’d just stepped out of the shower when I saw an unfamiliar number pop up on my cell phone. I picked up, and he just said, “This is Charlie, are you the girl who’s trying to write about me?” I was flying around my apartment in a bath towel, searching for something to write with; my notes from my first conversation with Charlie ended up being on a roll of paper towels. But that’s how this whole book went. I would have completely given up on someone talking to me, and then they’d come through at the most unexpected time.
Your book notes that “[a]rson is a weird crime.” Did the arsons change the county in lasting ways? Do many of the burnt buildings still stand?
Oh, a lot of them. The fires burned some buildings to the ground, but others they only singed. I don’t think the arsons particularly changed the county—it’s not like nobody trusts each other anymore, just because there was a serial arsonist—except that there are some places that end up having particular and peculiar dates with destiny. You can’t think of Holcomb, Kansas, without thinking of it being the setting of In Cold Blood, for example. And that’s what the arsons did. They took a place that nobody was paying attention to and made it briefly famous.
Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick truly had, as Elvis would say, a “Burning Love.” Each of them tells a very different story about who’s responsible for these crimes. Will anyone but them ever know the truth?
I don’t think anyone but them will ever know. Which is part of what makes it so fascinating. I heard a writer once say that the best mysteries are ones that leave more questions than they answer, because the real mystery isn’t who does what, but why. To me, American Fire is a book about arsons, but it’s really a mystery about the unfathomableness of the human heart. I had a million theories for what really happened and why, and they would change every time I talked to a new person.